There’s always a reason: Death on the 100

 

This season of The 100 has been a rollercoaster of quality so far. While season 2 was a slow burn to get things underway, season three started off with action. Not only that, but it has learned how to balance multiple storylines in a way that makes each of them more engaging. This week I’ll be talking about the Polis plotline and its midseason climax with 3×07 “Thirteen”. Let’s not waste any time and jump in. Spoilers up to 3×07 of the 100 CW: Death

The Polis plotline started off of as a Game of Thrones wannabe, the scheming between Lexa and Azgeda, with all of its death and plots could have easily fit into King’s Landing. It’s only fitting that we, and Clarke, were properly introduced to this plot by Lexa’s reappearance. In a way, all the machinations were a backdrop and catalyst to Clarke and Lexa’s relationship, and it worked well enough. While this season has been plowing through plot points, sometimes to the detriment of credibility, this part holds together.

Before continuing, it’s relevant to layout my opinion of Lexa as a character, as it informs the rest of my thought process. I am not the biggest fan, while I was happy about Lexa being a lesbian, as it meant more representation and showed that Clarke was bi, I didn’t like her for much else. I saw her introduction, relationship and influence on Clarke as the show running headfirst into nihilist misery and all the tired antihero tropes of the past decade-plus.* So season three had to do a lot to win me over that this wasn’t a waste of time, and by the time of “Thirteen” it did. The fact that Titus was the one pushing the “hard men making hard decisions” ideology and its refutation certainly helped. So with all that said, let’s turn our attention to where most of the action happens, 3×07 “Thirteen”.

This episode does a lot. It ties together the world’s mythology, expounds upon parts that were already known and sets the stage for the future. It has Clarke and Lexa actually be intimate and enter a relationship, or as much of a relationship as those two could have given their responsibilities. It also has Lexa anticlimactically killed by a stray bullet in a manner that is highly reminiscent of Tara’s death from Buffy the Vampire Slayer 14 years earlier.

Yes, it was well done within the context of the episode. Yes, it made the most sense given the contractual obligations that Lexa’s actress has. Yes, it fit in with the story that the writers have decided to tell and told us a lot about the world’s mythology. Yes, this is another case of a MOGAI woman being killed on TV, often in grisly fashion.

I can’t personally relate to what it’s like to have representation of yourself dangled in front of you and killed, time after time after time. Or having your interest in something stoked with hints and innuendoes instead of clear and open representation. I can understand on an intellectual level, the problems with the writing. I can understand on a moral level, and to some degree on an emotional level, but it’s not the same as seeing yourself. It is always important to hear those voices on this issue, such as this blog here. And this wasn’t all for all for naught, as fans have decided to capitalize on this to raise awareness.

Life is what you make of it. People don’t inherently have arcs and their worth is intrinsic. This isn’t the same case in fiction were good characters experience arcs and narrative cohesion is based upon things like narrative cohesion. Characters are made so the people telling the stories can say something about life and entertain the audience. So when a character ides, it’s to serve a purpose. Not all characters are created equally, not all deaths are created equally and the stories we tell ourselves reflect on ourselves and back again. There’s no reason why “Thirteen” had to end the way it did except for what the writers chose to do.

Ultimately, fiction comes down to the choices that its creators make. While The 100 has always been a mixed bag, this particular mixed bag has more issues and depth to it. Next week, I’ll be looking at the other major plots in The 100’s season three: Arkadia and the City of Light. Till then.

 

*The betrayal at Mount Weather in the season two finale also didn’t sit well with me, but the writers appear to have written off the Reapers and that decision makes sense in-universe.

 

 

Comparison in Disabled Representation: Daredevil and Toph

Netflix has reminded me that Daredevil is a thing they make, and as of the writing of this post will have a second season next week. It reminded me of a problem I had with the first season that I didn’t touch on in my review; Daredevil isn’t good representation of the blind. Now given how few disabled characters there are, let alone, blind characters on TV this is a problem. In order to illustrate this I thought it would make sense to compare him to a case of good representation: Toph Beifong from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Let’s not waste any time and jump in.

Before continuing, I myself am legally blind and this is just my personal opinion. Also I’m only talking about the Daredevil show.

So what’s the problem with Daredevil? The premise of his powers, that losing his vision has enhanced his other senses, is nonsense. There’s a difference between having to utilize your remaining senses in order to come up with tricks to function in a world that isn’t designed for people like you. But this a common misconception as conveying that idea to the abled, or the less aware disabled even. That his blindness came from a chemical spill isn’t a meaningful counter though. First, because of the aforementioned ideas in the real world, secondly Skip, his mentor is similarly blind with no explanation and finally because chemical spills are mundane. Becoming bind from a chemical spill is mundane. It’s not the same as being bitten by a spider that’s been experimented on or being exposed to radiation or being infused with the powers of an ancient god via holy relic. The show wants everything to be relatively mundane so that’s how one reads it.

The other problem is how rarely Daredevil being blind comes up. It comes up for Matt Murdock all the time, but for Daredevil? There’s maybe one scene where he does something with the lights to his advantage. Also the fact that he has quasi sonar vision with everything on fire is tacky. All in all Daredevil’s blindness seems like a negative character flaw you take in a tabletop game to get extra points and then set it up so that flaw never actually comes up.

Toph is a blind character whose blindness actually matters. Her parents don’t let her do anything. She “sees” through her feet, a workaround that causes problems multiple times throughout the series. At the same time, she’s able to manage her disability. It’s how she was able to learn earthbending and figure out metalbending. Toph is a fully realized character whose disability is a part of her and it impacts her.

And there’s the core of writing disabled characters: having them be fully realized characters. The other trick is write about their disabilities truthfully. As I’ve written before, it’s not hard, except for all the things that make it hard. Till next time.

Sirens and Asexuality

            Sirens is a short lived comedy from USA about Chicago paramedics. It’s a fun, competent show that in the end is somewhat forgettable. It had its moments but it needed time to grow into its own. Time it didn’t get. So why am I talking about this show? It has the distinction of being the only show with an openly asexual, ace, character on it. Granted, a recurring character, but still openly ace all the same. No headcanons or fandom or inferences, canonically ace. While headcanon and fandom can be invaluable subversive tools, there is something to be said for the vindication of on screen representation. While representation is just representation, the quality of that representation matters. Let’s just jump into it.

BEWARE OF SPOILERS YE WHO ENTER

We learn that one of the paramedics, Voodoo, is ace because Brian is interested in her. While there is a lot of acephobia, from characters being sex-obsessed and not being able to comprehend life without sex to the microaggression of “maybe it’s a phase”. It’s grating but the sequence works well enough to cement that the show treats asexuality as a real thing, culminating in this little speech:

You don’t want to have sex, and that’s fine with me ’cause I’m not having sex right now either. You don’t like sex, I happen to love it. From what I remember, it was pretty awesome…for me. I can’t really speak for everyone else involved. So forget sex. I like you. I think you’re funny and different and I never know what you’re going say. And obviously I think you’re beautiful. And if we never have sex, that’s ok ’cause I’m just happy being around you.

The episode then ends with Voodoo and Brian starting some kind of relationship.

This is all fine and good except the lack of focus and terminology means that the show runs afoul a misconception that it doesn’t address. Romantic and Sexual Orientation is not the same thing. Just because Voodoo is ace doesn’t mean she’s aromantic, or aro, The fact that one is left to extrapolate that Voodoo is aro isn’t good representation and how aces and aros function in a heteronormative society is a deep question that actual aces and aros have no good answer to, but the show never really addresses it. While the proper term for what they have is a queer platonic relationship there are specific problems.

We don’t see much of Voodo and Brian in the rest of the season one, so we only have a few things to work off of. The main one being that they are in some sort of relationship that is deeper than a platonic friendship. That’s the most we get in season one. Season two picks up a year later and that’s still the implied relationship. While they “break up” and I use quotes here to emphasize the vagueness, and have some remorse over it. But it’s hard to contextualize where these characters are coming from because they never define their relationship to us. We’re just left to fill in the blanks from a presumed heteronormative perspective. This is weak storytelling and offensive. The whole reason that aces and aros feel alienation is because of heteronormativity but if we are expected to understand their relationship through such a context then the value of representation is put into question.

Sirens gets credit for having an openly ace character, but it loses that credit as the show goes on and the shortcomings become apparent. It is a good first step, but more is needed. Till next time.

Diversity of Disability

Structures of power, marginalization and oppression value certain permutations of human existence over others. This plays out in the real world in countless ways. It becomes cultural norms that are displayed, reinforced and changed in media. While there are any number of issues with disability representation, today will be about the diversity of disability. Let’s not waste any time and jump into it.

On some level, being disabled means that the world isn’t made for you; that some part of you isn’t compatible with the physical structure of the world. There are numerous ways in which someone can be disabled, and even more ways in which different causes can have the same end result. When it comes to media, the most meaningful distinction with causes is being born with a disability versus developing it later in life.

These are radically different experiences, and have radically impact on people. Yet by and large stories will have characters who became disabled, not those who were born disabled.* It’s easy to frame these characters as tragic, how they were stricken down and how they’re trying to overcome this problem. It hits all the emotional beats and has a hint of inspiration porn mixed in. Not only that, but it’s easy to think about how these characters did or didn’t deserve this, how they were just like you and now they’re different. People who were born with disabilities though? They were shuttered away from society and written off, killed off, for most of human history. Those stories deserve to be told, need to be told.

But this isn’t to take away from people who did become disabled after they were born. Their stories matter too; but their stories must be more than clichés for the abled to feel good about themselves. We need to embrace the diversity of disability in all its forms in ways that matter to the disabled.

While it makes sense to treat disability as one broad tent, those who are inside the tent should understand and celebrate the degree of diversity within the tent. Next week, I’ll start looking back on 2015. Till next time.

 

*I am hard pressed to think of disabled characters but one that always stand out is Toph Beifong from Avatar; the Last Airbender, who is wonderful.

AKA Review: Marvel’s Jessica Jones

I am not the biggest fan of the MCU, and in fact had planned on skipping their latest offering from Netflix, Marvel’s Jessica Jones. Yet I kept seeing people talk about it on Twitter, a lot more people than Daredevil and whose opinions on media I value. So I started watching it, and it is indeed good. What makes it good is rather simple: it’s so unlike anything else that the MCU has produced so far. It’s not just a matter of the show being different, but by and large what it does, it does well. Let’s jump into it.

Trigger Warnings: Check out this list

Beware of Spoilers ye who enter

 

Jessica Jones isn’t a shiny superhero story like the films or a retread of Nolanverse Batman like Daredevil was, in fact it doesn’t feel like any sort of superhero story. Nor is it an origin story in the way that other things are. Instead, it reminds me of something out of the World of Darkness, gritty street –level action and dark subject matter. All of these things are so different than what we’ve come to expect that they’re all worth talking about individually.

In terms of genre this show is a noir, plain and simple. It draws upon that genre’s conventions far more than anything else. The idea of being a hero is far more mundane with thing such as Jessica stopping a mugging or Malcolm organizing a support group. A traditional caped crusader costume is the butt of a joke and any references to the MCU films feel more forced than anything. Not only that, but the idea of being a hero isn’t so clear cut. It’s something that Jessica struggles with throughout the show, and even at the season end it’s not clear where she falls.

There is another departure from the superhero stories we’ve come to see from the MCU: the violence. Action scenes are relatively rare here; this isn’t the slugfest of Daredevil. When the show calls for violence, the scenes are short enough to keep the viewer engaged and choreographed well enough that the viewer can follow along.

In the abstract, this is an origin story. This is how Jessica Jones becomes a hero, of some fashion, and outlines major things going forward (IPG, Luke Cage, Daredevil via Claire). In practice, this doesn’t feel like an origin story. Jessica is a character with history and established relationships with other characters. We’re being dropped en medias res with a natural beginning of Kilgrave coming back, but we get the sense that these characters have lives that extend beyond the story. This is in part due to the fact that of those plotlines I listed above: the first is a footnote by the time we learn of it compared to the immediate threat of Kilgrave, is only a major plot because he’s getting his own series next and this connection was only introduced in the season finale respectively.

This is as personal and street-level as a story can get. Kilgrave has harmed people, many people. But in the grand scheme of things has he harmed as many people as Fisk or any of his associates such as the Russians or Madam Gao? Probably not. He’s a piece of garbage, a mundane, too familiar piece of garbage with a superpower. There’s no talk of saving Hell’s Kitchen or anything as big.

Jessica Jones is a dark show. It’s not dark in the way that say The 100 or Daredevil or Bojack Horseman are dark. It’s dark in ways that make Netflix negligent for not having trigger warnings in the show description. It’s dark in that the show revolves around abuse, consent and rape. It’s dark in handling these subjects in a human way that drives the point home, too close for sadly too many people. The allegory of Kilgrave being the patriarchy is essentially text. There are a lot of situations and characters that are easily relatable. Kilgrave being called out explicitly as a rapist is shocking because of how rare that is in media. Hearing the word out loud, even when you know that’s what’s happening is jarring. It doesn’t take any mealy mouthed vagaries, or even outright reactionary ideas; it is open, direct and challenging to the status quo.

Not only that, but it has explicitly MOGAI characters with no special comment made about their orientation. Granted, these characters aren’t exactly the best people, which is its own issue in regards to tokenism, but actual representation is better than headcanons.

Of course, nothing is perfect and Jessica Jones fails when it comes to race. I would recommend reading this article to get a better idea.

Going forward, my main worry is that this season ends up being an aberration. That its departures from what we’ve come to know as pieces of the MCU formula will be seen as mistakes, not to be repeated. I want this to be the start of something new as other shows take the general ideas and innovations seen here as a baseline to improve upon, not run away from.

Next week, I’ll be talking about diversity of disability in media. Till then.

 

Evil is not Stupid

SXSW has been in the news for its decisions regarding an anti-harassment panel; specifically permitting a totally not Gamergate panel as a supposed counterweight to the harassment panel and then cancelling them both for poorly defined reasons. You can read Arthur Chu’s account here and Leigh Alexander’s take here if you’re unfamiliar with what’s happened so far. (Events are still unfolding) While this is important, I’ll leave discussion of it to other people who are better suited to do so. Instead, there was something else about this whole thing that I wanted to talk about: Chris Kluwe’s denunciation of the original decision, which you can read here.

Overall, it’s a strong piece, but when reading it one can’t help but notice the following paragraph:

I read this, slammed my head against the wall for an hour, snorted half a bottle of bleach, force-fed myself eighteen pounds of lead-based paints, and still couldn’t approach the depths of sheer bloody-minded imbecility it must have taken to put those words together in that particular order.

It stands out because it’s disconnected from the themes of the piece. It stands out because of how It stands out because of how ableist it is.

The notion that the organizers of SXSW are developmentally disabled, or the equivalent thereof, as the source of their cowardice is patently absurd. They knew what they were doing, and if there was any disconnect between intention and actions, it’s not because they’re stupid, it’s because they’re ignorant. If you are less forgiving of the organizers then they’re not ignorant; they know exactly what they’re doing and don’t care. Regardless, the end result is cowardice and evil.

Evil isn’t stupid. Evil can function with ignorance, but that isn’t a requirement. Evil can function with apathy, but that isn’t required either. Evil requires active, malicious action. It solidifies itself through systems of oppression and marginalization that benefit those who do harm. These systems then use ignorance and apathy to prop itself up as people who have vested interests, or are led to believe that they have vested interests, prop it up. Action, which manifests as violence, is knowingly taken to defend these systems.

Attributing cowardice and malice to a lack of an intelligence is offensive. It infantilizes the opposition and makes it quite clear what you think of the disabled. If we want to make the internet a safe space then ableism is one of the things we must work to end.

Review: the Ghost Brigades

John Scalzi’s The Ghost Brigades, the sequel to Old Man’s War, is a fine book. Scalzi is easy to read and technically proficient in the craft. The book is fun, military scifi in the vein of Henlien’s Starship Troopers. But it’s hard to say that this is a good book.

Part of the problem is in expectations. While it is set in the Old Man’s War universe and has some of the same characters, the book is ultimately telling a rather different story than its predecessor. Some of this is a matter of different themes. OMW was focused on world-building, technology and presenting an unambiguous picture from people in the trenches. TGB on the other hand, uses the set up of the previous book to question ‘what is a human?” as well expand the scope out of the trenches. It does the former a lot better than the latter.

The attempt at widening the scale of perspective doesn’t go over as well. It uses new information that is revealed awkwardly and ends up deflating the characters’ actions. It also creates a feeling of ‘middle installment do nothing’ where there’s all set up and no pay off. Given that this is a sequel and many of the fundamentals such as Scalzi’s writing style and the setting, are unchanged; this isn’t the worst. Finally, the new perspective changes the entire reading of the setting, which may or may not be to your liking, but given the aforementioned problem of all set up, is hard to judge this book on by itself.

Trigger warnings: Sex, Violence, Death

 

That’s my nonspoiler review of the book. But having reading the book, I have spoiler filled thoughts and commentary. So let’s not waste any time and jump into it.

Beware of Spoilers ye who enter

 

One of the things that made Old Man’s War easily readable was how relatable its initial set up. Earth, and the people on it, hadn’t radically changed in between now and the future of the book. In actuality this means that the book is positively relatable by a certain subsection; many of society’s evils are still present. While misogyny seems to be a thing of the past, structural inequality is still present, ableism is erased and heteronormativity is alive and well. Now you could argue that these problems started in OMW, but I read that years ago while watching a game of Diplomacy in college and didn’t have the same priorities as I do now. Also I’m talking about TGB, in which some of these problems are looked at a bit more.

The structural inequality is explained by the Colonial Union keeping Earth in stasis in order to farm it for a constant stream of soldiers and colonists. Soldiers come from developed countries and colonists from everywhere else. Perry’s first person, newcomer perspective coupled with the possibility of Scalzi fleshing out the world means that this didn’t come up in OMW. This demarcation plays out further as the more developed colonies were settled by Western countries along with the CDF being run by Westerners who are fine with this arrangement. A pointed emphasized by Boutin mocking the naming conventions of Special Forces. This is a terrifying, yet plausible future, in which current structures of inequality are perpetuated into space.

I’m of two minds with this revelation. On one hand, it makes enough sense, both in and out of universe, that’s certainly buyable. On the other hand, having these problems and then just chalking them up to a government conspiracy feels cheap. Any problem can just be explained away by society being locked in a state of arrested development. It does show a level of self awareness that the current state of affairs is bad but is still a relatable framework. Also it stretches my suspension of disbelief given the timescale.

Now an interstellar government engaging in a shadowy conspiracy in order to essentially grow people so they can engage in a go wide strategy in a game of Galactic Civilization is one thing. Said interstellar government being set on stopping another Civ from getting a diplomatic victory and being a pariah state is another. This is essentially the extent of any reasoning that we receive. All of this information is revealed in the book’s climax by an unreliable source, and then confirmed in the resolution; which doesn’t really make for a good twist.

This isn’t a problem for our protagonists though. As the text points out, they’re brainwashed child slave soldiers. They find out about this and reject the information out of hand as they continue on their mission. Jared as a blank slate to contrast Special Forces with regular CDF is fine; Jared as a somewhat more confrontational blank slate is less fine. The plot contrives to make their rejection to Charles automatic.

Of course, Boutin has a point, but his plan would involve killing millions of people. This is a trope that I’m so tired of, and I’m aware that this book came out before other examples that I can think of, where the villain has a point about the systemic injustice that our heroes represent and defend, but the villain is gonna kill lots of people so the injust system stays as is. At this point I’m left wondering why should I care? The setting worked as a Hobbesian nightmare of everyone against everyone else and you can write off the evil stuff that the CU does as realpolitik, it’s a lot less interesting when the nuance makes one side a lot worse.

I mentioned ableism above not because of anything specific, but because the CU has such a strange fixation on baseline humans, except when it comes to the CDF and the long term plan of turning everyone into a Gameran. There are so many questions about the technology that go beyond consciousness transfer that don’t belong in this book; it’s not the story that Scalzi wants to tell. But they are questions that indicate disabled erasure.

Heteronormativity on the other hand, is in full prominent force. All we see are hetero relationships; all we see is hetero sex. Special Forces apparently celebrate missions by having an orgy, which is totally voluntary but the only Jane skips out on. Not because she’s asexual, but because of some sort of relationship with Perry or Captain Not Appearing in this Book. There isn’t anything else to say, it’s just patently absurd nonsense that throttles the diversity of actual human experience. Or it’s a case of the CU altering the genome of Special Forces to wire them all this way; which isn’t substantiated anywhere in the text but headcanons exist by and large to subvert.

     TGB is a fine book, it has problems but they’re universally insurmountable to make the book unreadable. Next week I’ll be reviewing Pokemon X &Y. Till then.

Live Historic on the Fury Road: Mad Max and Disability

I was one of the few people who did not see Mad Max: Fury Road in theatres earlier this year. I knew next to nothing about the franchise and heard of how excellent it was secondhand. So I was intrigued when Tauriq Moosa was posting on Twitter about Max being disabled and his opinion piece about it, which you can find here. This intrigued me; it was a part of Max’s character that I didn’t know about at all. So when I finally got around to watching the film, I was specifically looking at the film through a disability lens. So let’s jump in.

The most striking thing about Fury Road is so many characters are disabled in some way. Max has his leg brace, Furiosa is missing an arm, Nux has some sort of chronic illness, Immortan Joe needs a respirator to stay alive. This is a powerful message in and of itself, while representation is just representation; nonharmful representation is more than just representation. While the morality of these characters covers a spectrum to say the least, they’re all competent. It’s also, with the exception of Nux needing a ‘blood bag’, is never commented on. This in and of itself is a positive step forward, but there is so much context to this film that make it greater.

First, there’s a matter of genre. Fury Road is set in a post apocalyptic wasteland where any sort of greenery is rare and trees aren’t commonly known. It’s the kind of world where many people assume that the disabled wouldn’t be able to survive in. While Max’s struggle with civilization is closer to survival than most, that’s because of his character as a whole. It’s the same thing, these are fully formed characters with greater aspirations than living to see the next meal. In a world that is physically hostile and bleak as the wasteland, this is a powerful message.

The other interesting thing about Fury Road is the ways in which the film can be read. There’s the literal reading, the events we see are what happen. Then there are more mythical readings, this is a new Deamtime. My own interpretation lies closer to the mythical. The film makes the most sense to me as an in-universe folk tale a la Robin Hood or King Arthur. In broad strokes, the film’s events as presented happened; the details aren’t strictly true. Immortan Joe, Furiosa, the Wives and the War Boys, they all existed. Max on the other hand, is an iconic character who doesn’t slot in neatly. Max is a heroic figure who may not even necessarily been alive when this happened, but this story has become a part of Max’s canon.

This view is mainly supported by the film’s style, which creates a sort of timeless, otherworldly feel. The passage of time in the film feels off and pushes my suspension of disbelief in a way that little else does. Characters’ presentation is a triumph of minimalist storytelling; we know so little about them but it’s clear that they exist in a greater world. This is information that a viewer or listener presumably wouldn’t need in a folk tale. Also considering that George Miller has stated that he can’t figure out the chronology of the original trilogy, extrapolating that something is off isn’t that much a stretch. Finally, it’s an interpretation that appeals to me as it’s more grounded in history and how we tell stories.

On one hand, this view means the aforementioned disabilities are prominent in the narrative means that the future isn’t engaging in disability erasure. These are who these people were. The lack of focus on the fact that these people are disabled means that it’s not something worth commenting on in the future. Taking that detail in conjunction with Furiosa and the Wives returning triumphantly to the Citadel is an incredibly optimistic ending. On the other hand, the film is very much Furiosa’s story, and the idea of it being grafted onto Max’s canon stinks. However, the events of the film show that Max plays a supporting role, he’s a wandering swordsman who helps those in need and moves on. The story may have been grafted onto Max’s canon, but it’s the same thing as say Galahad and the Green Knight, it’s connected to the King Arthur canon, but it’s not about King Arthur.

Fury Road succeeds because its disabled characters are more than their disabilities. They do more than survive; they live and strive as people. This is a seemingly simple task that only requires one to unlearn centuries of institutional ableism. Fury Road should be praised for what it did, but looking forward it is also important to consider what other things can do as well in showcasing different types of disability in a similar manner. Next week I’ll be reviewing John Scalzi’s The Ghost Brigades. Till next time.

 

And the Future Looks So Bleak: the Lack of Optimistic Scifi on TV

The Golden Age of TV, the Television Renaissance, or whatever you want to call the upsurge in quality for the better part of the past decade has been marked by several common denominators, grittiness being at the top of the list. This works well enough in shows that are striving for verisimilitude or some approximation of reality as it enables non-traditional stories to be told. There is a different effect on science fiction however, while other genres are able to tell more stories, it narrows the narratives that can be told.

Shows like ‘Breaking Bad’ or ‘Orange is the New Black’ have received part of their critical acclaim due to their use of societal issues that wouldn’t come up in more traditional media; toxic masculinity in the case of the ‘Breaking Bad’ and intersectional feminism in the case of ‘Orange is the New Black’. These shows are that way because traditional narratives about the real world don’t permit these things to be acknowledged. Science fiction may have its own host of traditional narratives, but they’re not tied to the modern day in the same way. It can raise topics in a way that other shows can’t, but they don’t. Instead, they have also embraced being gritty.

So what exactly am I talking about? Think about the scifi shows on television today. Now exclude the ones set in the modern day such as ‘Person of Interest’ and what does that leave? By my count, there’s ‘Defiance’, ‘The 100’, ‘Dominion’ and ‘Doctor Who’. I’ll be ignoring ‘Who’ on the grounds of not knowing much about it. All of these shows are post-apocalyptic. ‘Defiance’ wants to be a space western meets ‘Game of Thrones’, ‘The 100’ is downright fatalistic and ‘Dominion’ is about angels trying to murder humanity. If you take a more historical look, it doesn’t get much better. NuBSG started out as keying in on the zeitgeist of post 9/11 America, turning into an argument for maltheism. Stargate as a franchise became darker and edgier as it went on. ‘Star Trek: Enterprise’ may have had its problems, but being Star Trek in name only wasn’t one of them. Yet at the same time, in order to find a mainstream scifi show that wasn’t epressing on some level went off the air a decade ago. Why?

There are a number of reasons for this shift. Part of this is a general backlash against Star Trek and wanting to tell different stories. Another part is a general disinterest in that kind of aesthetic and a desire for more varied sets and special effects.. This general move also matched the zeitgeist. On one hand, we’ve become more inclusive. On the other hand, there are countless structural problems that make any outlook on the future bleak. It leaves our capacity to think of a better future underdeveloped and leaves us thinking that all roads lead to the apocalypse. Utopian science fiction, even optimistic science fiction is something that can be done, so the question becomes how?

The seemingly obvious answer to this is to make another Star Trek series. As the rights for the shows and the movies are split between Paramount and CBS; there’s no reason why a TV series set in the original timeline, after the Dominion War, can’t happen. This split is also the only conceivable way that an optimistic Star Trek series could be made given the directions of the new movies, but that’s a different discussion. I find this answer to be unsatisfying though. Star Trek has built up a number of idiosyncrasies that make the franchise special, but also mean it’s not what I want when we’re trying to revive the idea of optimistic science fiction.

Star Trek has a lot of continuity built up, and while that continuity was developed on the fly, there is a level of cohesion that makes it hard to write in. The best example of this is are the Klingons. It’s one thing for them to be an analogy for the Soviet Union, it’s quite another for them to space Vikings, devoid of any meaningful real world analogy. And it’s Star Trek, how are you not going to use Klingons, or Vulcans or any other iconic species? While the timeline could be jumped a few hundred years and an Enterprise is exploring a new part of space, it would eventually have continuity problems in that Star Trek doesn’t really map well to the current zeitgeist.

The idea that the Federation is paradise is accepted, but looking at the Federation as presented means that paradise has a lot of asterisks. Star Trek is firmly bioconservative, a ban on genetic augmentation on one hand and the Borg on the other show this. Such a show would be hamstrung in addressing one of, if not the biggest, trends in scifi today. Not only that, but it’s idea of growth and spreading paradise is disturbing as it assimilates everyone in its path, erasing cultures outside of quirks. Ideas about paradise and diversity have grown beyond a homogenizing force as you’re subsumed into a paradise that reads as an ideal liberal America. Which isn’t to say that I’m against the idea of another Star Trek series, but such a series would be uniquely Star Trek, its existence wouldn’t magically fix the problem. Nor should it, there are a multitude of quality TV shows out there, why can’t optimistic scifi have even half as many takes as post-apocalyptic gritty scifi?

So do I want, in broad strokes at least? Diversity of human characters, aliens are fine, but they’re no substitute for actual human representation. Not only that, but this diversity can’t be tokenism or left hanging in the background. If a character isn’t straight or nonwhite or disabled then it shouldn’t be the focus of a very special episode or tokenism; it should be normalized and apparent. It should be about good people doing good things. Those two things as a basis and there are lot of directions you can go and a lot of ways to fill in the blanks.

The future may look bleak, but it doesn’t have to. Till next time.

 

Ableism and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Part 2

Last week I started to talk about ableism in Deep Space Nine, which you can find here. This week, I continue the discussion by looking at another two episodes and offer some thoughts to bring it all together. Let’s not waste any time and jump right into it.

BE WARNED: while I originally wanted to keep these confined to their respective episodes, I found that doing wasn’t so easy this time around. So spoiler warning for the entire series.

Statistical Possibilities

            Bashir helps a group of eccentric genetically engineered Humans who are visiting him try to make a useful contribution to the Federation; the Dominion offers to sign a truce with the Federation. Memory Alpha summary

            Plot Highlights: The episode opens on a group of people that are genetically enhanced. These people, unlike Bashir, were locked away at some sort of Institute. They are: Jack, defiant and abrasive, Sarina non-communicative, Patrick overly sentimental and attached and Lauren, a temptess. They’ve arrived on DS9 in the hopes that Bashir can help them.

The first meeting involves Jack testing Bashir; what and how much was modified, how he was able to pass as normal. Jack isn’t happy about how Bashir was able to pass himself off as normal, nor does he accept living at the Institute and how society is still haunted by the Eugenics War. Bashir acts one would expect if they’ve been assimilated into Federation culture by being a foil to Jack and ends up leaving to have dinner with the rest of the senior staff.

Over dinner we learn several things. First, Julian’s parents found a good doctor to do the resequencing on, which is why he doesn’t have any side effects. The others didn’t and as a result they couldn’t pass and were instead placed at the Institute for care. Second, the idea of them coming to the station is that seeing someone living a normal life would help them adjust so that they could live normal lives. Third, this is still Star Trek and being against genetic enhancement and some fear of the enhanced is common; although these views aren’t portrayed in a flattering light and Bashir does push against the bigotry while keeping things civil.

Dinner is interrupted by Jack hacking the comm. system in order to get Bashir to fix a noise that the other Augments have been hearing. It turns out to be a sympathetic vibration that normal humans can’t hear and it gets fixed jus as Damar begins a speech. The Augments, through either ignoring currents or being kept in the dark, don’t know about the events leading up to the 2nd Battle of Deep Space Nine and deduce them from body language. They’re fascinated by the whole thing and Bashir uses the fact that negotiations will be occurring on DS9 to keep them engaged.

A recording of the negotiations is playing out and the Augments are able to figure out what the Dominion’s actual aims are, a particular system, and why, it contains the means to produce ketracel-white. This leads to a flurry of analysis from the Augments as they determine what the most likely course of outcome would be and what the Federation should do. The projections are specific to such a degree that no real person could actually come up with, and we are saved much of the technobabble explanation, to find out that Sisko thinks the analysis is worth sending up the chain.

O’Brien walks in on Bashir and the other Augments celebrating in order to do some maintenance. It is painfully obvious how much Bashir has fitted into the group dynamic and how O’Brien really doesn’t fit in. Later at Quark’s, O’Brien finds out that they think of him as ‘uncomplicated’ which doesn’t go over well. The two of them seem to talk past each other as Bashir talks about how his new relationships and O’Brien eggs him onto to say how he feels superior to everyone around him.

The Augments have run a new series of projections which show that the Dominion is destined to win, and that the Dominion will fall to a new Federation in six generations. While Bashir is convinced, no one else is, Sisko finds the idea morally unconscionable and O’Brien finds Bashir’s sumgness to be more aggravating than normal given his open sense of superiority. Starfleet rejects surrender and Jack decides to commit treason as he’s the next best thing to a god and will do so in order to save billions of lives.

Sarina helps Bashir get loose from his restraints and the attempted treason is defused without incident. They’ll be going back to the Institute. There’s some resolution with Bashir and the other regulars about his behavior as well as a final scene with the other Augments.

            Analysis: In terms of ableism, this episode is rather straightforward. All of the other Augments are clearly coded to be read as Autistic. This makes a certain amount of sense; botching DNA resquencing would presumably have repercussions. The problem is explicitly tying autism to something that has been repeatedly described as unnatural is hurtful. Not only that, but having them spend their lives quarantined from the rest of society is indicative of a society that cannot handle the neurodivergent and has upgraded facilities with the intent of keeping these people out of sight, out of mind. It’s a damning statement of the Federation, moreso than Eddington or Quark offer, cause it isn’t questioned at all.

Bashir being an Augment mapped to having an invisible disability to a certain extent, and that sense of camaraderie with people who share your problems does exist. Granted, it’s not borne out of being Ubermensch, but the idea is there. It’s hard to go deeper than that given how much of this episode revolves around the Augments being geniuses.

Jack and the others being ‘autistic’ is a poor choice on a narrative level. I’m willing to accept that collective cultural trauma has resulted in a ban on DNA resequencing in order to avoid another WWIII. I also understand that the presentation of how this plays out regarding the disabled is going to be unsatisfying given the writers’ preconceived notions, ableist and others, as well as a fictional universe can’t be as detailed as the real world. All that being said, having none of the Augments act like Khan, or a prototypical Khan, is underwhelming. Jack flirting with superiority and calling himself the closest thing to a god n order to justify treason doesn’t really do it. Deep Space Nine is a Star Trek show and that means drawing upon the legacy of continuity. Setting up a ban on DNA resquencing and having the only problems come about because of poor procedure isn’t really convincing. While this story can end up retreading ground that the show has already done before, particularly with Garak, the episode would have more of a punch.

In terms of continuity with the rest of the series, this episode is actually grating. On one hand, the Dominion also coming to the same conclusion about an uprising centered on Earth occurring and taking measures to prevent it once they win was a nice callback. On the other hand, the fact that their analysis turns out to be almost completely correct, with the sole exception of not accounting for Odo, is somewhat cheap. Not only does it undermine the ending of this episode, but it undermines the rest of the series with this knowledge. Everything that happens has been determined through statistics-babble and people are playing out their parts. ‘All this has happened before and will happen again’ may work for NuBSG, it doesn’t really work for DS9.

Chrysalis

            Jack, Lauren, Patrick and Sarina, the genetically-engineered Humans, return to the station, asking Bashir to help rouse Sarina from her cataleptic state. Memory Alpha summary

            Plot Highlights: The episode opens with Bashir unable to find anyone to hang out with, heads to sleep and is awakened by Nog as an Admiral Patrick is requesting Bashir’s presence. The Admiral turns out to be Patrick, one of the Augments from the Institute. They have returned to DS9 as Bashir has come up with a theory of how he can help Sarina, and they didn’t want to wait.

Impersonating an Admiral and his staff is a crime so Bashir finds himself arguing for leniency with Sisko. Much of this conversation is rehashing points that have already been brought up before: how the Augments have been excluded from society, how Bashir could’ve ended up like them, as well moving the plot forward.

O’Brien is presented with a rare technical problem that he can’t solve, setting up a chance for the Augments to show off how smart they are and the procedure happens with a minor scene long complication before the procedure works. The Augments are overjoyed with the result and give Sarina a crash course in talking/singing that shows how well they work together; as well as Sarina’s amazing rate of growth.

Bashir walks in on Sarina in his quarters, where they have touching moments about how Sarina doesn’t want to revert to her previous state and general interpersonal chemistry with Bashir. Sarina goes to spend time with the other Augments who don’t mix as well when Sarina points out how outlandish Jack’s plan to save the universe in 60 trillion years. Bashir invites Sarina, and only Sarina to dinner and after Sarina cleans up, they head out.

Sarina showcases the Augments’ ability to read people and we skip to after the dinner, with Bashir and Sarina walking along the Promenade. Eventually she starts talking about how nice it is to be around people who are normal and argues that the other Augments couldn’t function in society. This in turn leads to discussing the Institute and how Sarina won’t be going back. She wonders what she’ll do with her life, and then kisses Bashir.

The other Augment don’t take the news as well. They’re not keen on having their group torn apart, and they’re not keen o how Bashir can’t help them in a similar fashion.

Bashir is head over heels in love, and so very, very, happy that there’s someone like him. Sarina is overwhelmed by this amount of attention and feigns a return to her prior state. The other Augments figure out this is a ruse, instead of Sarina telling them. This revelation displays the incredibly messed up dynamic between Bashir and Sarina; as she feels that she owes him everything and wants to make him happy. The episode ends with Bashir realizing his error, O’Brien reassuring him that no one wants to be alone, and all the Augments going their separate ways.

            Analysis: This episode is bad, really bad in a way that none of the others are. Given that the Institute Augments are clearly coded as being autistic; the notion of curing someone, the non-communicative one at that, is incredibly offensive. Now, it’s worth remembering that being an Augment isn’t actually being autistic, but the association is there, and the language that gets used drives the problem home. The repeated insistence that is a cure, that it’ll fix Sarina. But when they say fix, they don’t mean reverse the DNA resquencing, just make it so she’s communicative. The fact that Sarina is the only one who can receive such treatment, the others can’t have their behavioral disorders fixed in a similar manner is cheap writer’s fiat. The central idea, that there is a cure for such a thing, crouched in the terms that DS9 has already established, makes this episode reek of something that Autism Speaks would approve of. Genetic enhancement isn’t permissible except in extreme cases, and it’s fine to keep tinkering with people if they’re disabling the symptoms of autism.

If that was the only problem with this episode it’d be one thing, but it’s not. This episode tries to distance itself as much as possible from the previous episode. There’s no talk about the Dominion or the war at all. Jack, Patrick and Lauren aren’t concerned with trying to come up with a way to win the war, which one would expect given the ending of ‘Statistical Possibilities’; but how to save the universe in 60 trillion years. It’s ridiculous, as it reduces these characters to puerile dilettantes instead of people who wanted to do the right thing. Nor are they quite the same people, their mannerisms are different and they have less hang-ups about being confined to the Institute. They’re recurring characters who aren’t developed enough that the changes are believable and their presence doesn’t add much, if anything.

The reason for structuring the episode this way and altering the characters this way is painfully clear. This episode is really about giving Bashir a romance and playing with his status as an Augment. Which on the surface is not the most endearing idea, and even a cursory glance at the actual situation shows an unhealthy relationship founded upon an imbalance of power. While the show is aware of this, framing an entire episode around this isn’t terribly compelling.

Otherwise there just isn’t much else to say. By this point the show is retreading itself and I’m not keen on retreading the same commentary. This episode is just underwhelming.

 

So where does this leave us? DS9’s first attempt at addressing the issues of disability with ‘Melora’ was well-meaning, but ultimately insulting. It shows a lack of thought and paints a picture of ‘paradise’ that is exclusionary. A ‘paradise’ that patronizes the physically disabled and shutters the neurodivergent away out of sight. The utopian version of the future is one that doesn’t have the disabled in it, and while that doesn’t take away from the good things that DS9 does, it’s worth keeping in mind going forward. Till next time